The Best Candidate for the Job

How businesses and universities are attempting to stymie unconscious bias and create more inclusive workplaces

While many experts agree that the business case for diversity has been proven, workforces at corporations and businesses nationwide remain fairly homogeneous; this is especially the case with leadership positions. For instance, in 2011, 74.4 percent of corporate directors were white men, and as of 2014, 83 percent of private American companies’ chief executives were white.

[Above: Students, faculty, and staff of Olin Business School during the Frick Forum’s Day of Discovery on Race and Ethnicity at Washington University in St. Louis]

Cheryl Staats, senior researcher at the Kirwan Institute on Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University and co-author of its report State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review 2015, says that while incidents of explicit bias have decreased over the last couple decades, implicit — or unconscious — biases might be to blame for the lack of underrepresented minorities in management positions. According to Staats, unconscious biases are associations outside of our conscious awareness that affect our attitudes, actions, and decisions.

“We like to think that people are going through the world with the best of intentions, but a lot of meaningful disparities still exist, and people [have been] trying to understand why,” Staats says. “The implicit biases we have affect how we see and understand the world. Every moment of human decision-making is potentially susceptible to the influence of implicit bias.”

She says that these biases have particularly harmful implications in the workplace.

“When you think about this in terms of companies, whether it’s in promotion decisions, hiring decisions, so on and so forth, the possibility always exists [for bias to filter in], and I think it does have a meaningful influence.”

As more and more companies recognize the negative effects unconscious biases can have — and their tendency to counteract efforts to increase diversity — training on the subject has increased. According to a January 2014 Wall Street Journal article, as many as 20 percent of large U.S. companies are providing unconscious bias training to their employees, and that figure could increase to 50 percent by 2019. Some of these companies include Pfizer Inc., Google, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Facebook Inc., and BAE Systems.

According to Staats, these deeply rooted attitudes and beliefs often exist as confirmation bias — the idea that people have a tendency to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. Staats cited a study conducted by NextGen in which law firm partners were asked to review a fictitious memo infused with errors.

Cheryl-Staats“We like to think that people are going through the world with the best of intentions, but a lot of meaningful disparities still exist …”

— Cheryl Staats, senior researcher at the Kirwan Institute on Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University

In the study, participants performed a writing analysis of the memo. In some instances the fictitious author, named Thomas Meyer, was listed as African American, at other times Caucasian.

“When listed as African American, [reviewers] found more of the embedded errors and rated the memo as being lower quality, compared to when the author was listed as Caucasian. … Even if we have the intention to be unbiased, confirmation bias can lead us to see more errors when we expect to see errors, [or to see] fewer errors when we are unconsciously expecting to see fewer,” Staats says. “So this really accentuates the idea that minorities or women may be evaluated differently in the workplace.”

Despite the fact that unconscious biases are outside of our conscious awareness, there are means of detecting them.

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) — developed by scientists at Harvard University, the University of Washington, and the University of Virginia in 1998 — measures the strength of associations between concepts (i.e., black people, gay people, and so on) and evaluations (i.e., good, bad), essentially revealing unconscious biases.

According to Project Implicit, the organization that administers the test and also conducts research and training, IATs can tap those hidden, automatic stereotypes and prejudices that circumvent conscious control. Calvin Lai, director of research for Project Implicit, says the IAT relies on memory and the way in which people tend to pair things together.

The IAT test for race — which Lai says is the most popular one — uses a series of images and words to determine the presence of unconscious biases against African Americans. During the first part of the test, participants must match white faces and bad words to one side of the computer screen and black faces and good words to the other side. The situation is then reversed: White faces must be matched with good words, black faces with bad words.

“We compare how fast you are at pairing white with good and black with bad to how fast you are at pairing white with bad and black with good,” Lai says. “What we typically find is that most white Americans — in fact, most non-black Americans — are faster at pairing white faces with good words and black faces with bad words. That seems to suggest something about how these ideas are associated together in the mind.”

While these tests may reveal some surprising and disheartening truths about ourselves, Lai says their purpose is simply to create a sense of awareness so that we can take steps to avoid acting on them.

“It doesn’t mean that you’re a capital ‘R’ racist or a capital ‘S’ sexist,” he says, “but it does show that you might end up acting in ways that are inconsistent with your beliefs.”

Integrating Awareness
In San Francisco, online file-sharing and -storing company Dropbox recently instituted unconscious bias training for all of its 1,200 employees, as well as new hires. Vice President of People Arden Hoffman says employees have been very supportive.

Previously offered only several times a year, it is now a part of the company’s formal diversity program. Hoffman says, beyond awareness, the training is focused on helping employees change their behavior.

“We need to continue to … push forward,” she says. “Now that we told you about unconscious bias, what can you do in your day-to-day life as a leader, as a manager, and as an individual contributor to actually be more inclusive of the people around you, to create a team that is welcoming and inspiring to others?”

The training, conducted by outside consulting firm Paradigm, kicked off at the beginning of the summer and will continue through the fall, with group sessions held several times a week. As of late August, more than 400 Dropbox employees had completed the training. While this round will end in October, Hoffman says the company plans to offer unconscious bias training on a more regular basis.

A visual storytelling board by Maketa Wilborn, used during a panel discussion at Olin Business School
A visual storytelling board by Maketa Wilborn, used during a panel discussion at Olin Business School

Other institutions are taking an even more proactive approach to addressing the issue by educating individuals before they enter leadership positions.

At Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School, the MBA Class of 2017 is getting a business education and more, with training designed to address issues such as unconscious bias, social identity, and power and privilege.

“We wanted to go beyond simply having a one- to two-hour [diversity] training session during orientation. While that was helpful, we realized that it’s not a one-time thing,” says Sarah Miller, assistant dean and director of graduate student affairs at Olin. “There’s so much to cover, and it’s easy for students — once they get beyond the orientation program — to get so absorbed in their classes and job search. We felt it was important to keep the topic fresh in their minds.”

The program is being executed by St. Louis-based diversity and inclusion consulting firm The Mouse and the Elephant, co-founded by psychologist Dr. Kira Hudson Banks and strategic storyteller Eric Ratinoff. The firm’s name, based on a parable, is an analogy for dominant and non-dominant roles in the workplace.

“If you are the elephant in the room, you’re not worried too much about what the mouse is doing, but if you’re the mouse, you’re paying close attention to what the elephant does,” Ratinoff says. “There certainly are a lot of programs out there to support those mice as they try to navigate corporate culture.”

Banks and Ratinoff’s training aims to bring understanding to students of their responsibility to help create a more inclusive business culture. The unconscious bias part of the program involves helping students become aware of any biases they may have — this includes taking the IAT — then allowing them time to self-reflect and to “integrate some of that awareness into their everyday lives,” says Banks.

The purpose of the training isn’t to teach students how to act objectively — because, as Banks says, “that’s impossible” — but instead to recognize how their biases might affect decisions they may make as managers and leaders.

Often, Banks says, the most harmful biases are those that stem from our preferences for certain groups over others.

“[Unconscious bias research] actually suggests that the most problematic bias is the bias toward one’s own group, rather than against other groups. … So we want to help people to start to see their unconscious biases without jumping to the shame and the blame that often come with seeing how we might be privileging the groups we are part of that have more power and privilege in society.”

To demonstrate the impact these biases can have and show examples of how to avoid their influence, Banks and Ratinoff use a variety of methods and interactive activities to engage and educate students, including games, reading assignments, videos, group discussions, and applied theater. Their training includes three sessions throughout the fall semester, the first of which took place at Olin’s MBA student orientation on Aug. 4.

Discovering the Silver Bullet
Developing awareness of our hidden biases may be the easy first step to addressing them, but counteracting their harmful effects takes dedication and intentionality to ensure fair and equal treatment in the workplace.

While some companies stop at offering a one-time training, many experts — such as Lai — agree that awareness alone is not the solution.

“When you’re evaluating job candidates or employees for promotion, what can often happen is that implicit bias can leak in based on little cues,” Lai says. “So if a person’s name is Asian-sounding or black-sounding, for instance, [or if] you have information about their age or gender, that can lead you to behaviors that are inconsistent with how you want to act.”

Lai offers a simple solution to negate this behavior: Cover up a candidate’s name on résumés and other job materials. “You blind it so that people who are going through initial passes of who to hire or who to promote don’t even see the names, and so, that way, they can’t even act on their implicit race or gender biases,” he says.

This idea is the basis for software developed by small Silicon Valley tech company Unitive. Founded by technologist Laura Mather in 2012, Unitive’s software — which was released in summer 2015 — helps prevent unconscious biases from even entering into hiring and promotions decision processes.

Mather says this is done by re-focusing companies on “what’s relevant” by controlling which parts of a candidate’s application a manager can see.

“When someone is reviewing résumés, we’re only showing them components of [them]; they don’t get to see the name of the person [or] their address — because sometimes people can infer something about race or socioeconomic status from the address,” she says.

When candidates apply for a position with companies that use Unitive, the first and only piece of information available to hiring managers is a person’s work experience or skill set, which they rank based on the qualifications they are seeking. Next, employers get to see candidates’ educational backgrounds, which they also rank. At the end of this process, managers are able to view the full résumés of candidates who received the best combined scores; from there, they decide who to bring in for interviews.

“Research shows that if you know people are going to be reviewing what you said about a candidate or a decision that you’ve made, you’re much less likely to be biased.”

— Laura Mather, founder and CEO of Unitive

“We don’t let you have biases that bleed across the résumé. We’re compartmentalizing [them],” Mather says.

Because bias still has the potential to creep into the process when companies are deciding whom to bring in for interviews and, ultimately, whom to hire, Unitive keeps track of all decisions made. It records information on how résumés were scored; what candidates were brought in for interviews; feedback from interviews — which is made public to other interviewers; and who was hired.

Mather says this feature is meant to hold people accountable for their actions, as well as serve as a way for companies to evaluate their efforts. “Research shows that if you know people are going to be reviewing what you said about a candidate or a decision that you’ve made, you’re much less likely to be biased,” she says.

While disrupting behaviors caused by unconscious biases has the potential to create a more diverse workforce, Unitive’s focus is on helping businesses find the best candidate for a job.

“The purpose of this software is less about making sure certain demographics are well represented, and it’s more about not making hiring and promotion decisions based on skin color or whether or not [a person] has a great hairdo or follows the same sports teams as you,” Mather says. “We need hiring and promotion decisions to be purely merit based.”

While most experts agree that awareness of our unconscious biases is not enough to evade their influence, ideas on how to overcome them in the workplace vary.

“I think we are starting to see evidence that unconscious bias training is not the silver bullet we were hoping it would be,” Mather says, “and it’s time to find other ways to have impact. Therefore, we need something that, in real time, can disrupt bias behaviors.”

For Mather, technology is the silver bullet business has been looking for.●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity